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Letters to the PM, Government & People of Papua New Guinea

HUMAN RIGHTS WATCH CONDEMNS SHOOTING, WARNS AGAINST ONE-SIDED INQUIRY

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Papua New Guinea authorities should carry out an effective and transparent investigation into the shooting of student protesters by police in Port Moresby, Human Rights Watch said today. The government should identify and hold accountable any security officials found responsible for using unnecessary or excessive force.

On the morning of June 8, 2016, police opened fire on students on the Waigani campus of the University of Papua New Guinea as they attempted to march to the national parliament to call for a vote of no confidence in the government of Prime Minister Peter O’Neill. Police confirmed that at least 23 students were injured, but disputed claims by opposition party activists that several protesters were killed.

“There needs to be an independent and transparent investigation into the firing of live ammunition by the police into crowds of student protesters, and any security officials responsible for wrongful orders or actions should be prosecuted,” said Phil Robertson, deputy Asia director at Human Rights Watch.

Police Commissioner Gari Baki issued a statement refuting reports that there had been fatalities but confirming that “23 people believed to be University students were reportedly injured in a confrontation with police outside the precincts of the University of Papua New Guinea Waigani Campus.” Commissioner Baki confirmed, “Five are reported to be in a critical condition … at the Port Moresby General Hospital.” Port Moresby General Hospital issued a statement saying that it treated 8 persons for gunshot wounds, but added that no one from the protest had died at the hospital or arrived dead on arrival.

Students have been protesting for five weeks demanding O’Neill step down over corruption allegations. O’Neill responded to the violence with a statement claiming “a small group of students were violent, threw rocks at police and provoked a response that came in the form of tear gas and warning shots.” He added that an inquiry would be held “to determine the underlying reasons for continued student unrest promoted by individuals outside the student body … [and] to uncover the source of external funding that has underwritten student protest in recent weeks.”

As a party to the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights, Papua New Guinea has an international legal obligation to respect the rights to life, bodily integrity, and security as well as the right to protest and investigate all potential violations.

The United Nations Basic Principles on the Use of Force and Firearms by Law Enforcement Officials, which sets out accepted international standards on the use of force in law enforcement situations, provide that police and other security forces shall, as far as possible, apply nonviolent means before resorting to the use of force. Whenever the lawful use of force is unavoidable the authorities should use restraint and act in proportion to the seriousness of the offense. Lethal force may only be used when strictly unavoidable to protect life.

An independent and impartial investigation should examine what went wrong that led to the use of force against student protesters, and identify those responsible for any wrongdoing. Only with such an investigation will the authorities be able to restore trust in the police.

“The Prime Minister’s announcement focused unduly on the student protests and failed to recognize the need for an investigation into the use of force and firearms by police,” Robertson said. “A one-sided government investigation to hunt for alleged ‘instigators’ among the students is simply unacceptable.”

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